Eureka!: 60 Seconds

Hard at Play

60 Seconds with Richard Lamb

Bina Ramamurthy.

Mind Game: Richard Lamb dons the VR mask. Photo: Douglas Levere

Interview by Andrew Coddington


In July, UB’s Downtown Campus played host to the 2018 Serious Play Conference. The three-day event explored how games—from old-school board games to high-tech, immersive simulations—can influence and enhance learning across multiple arenas, from the boardroom to the battlefield. Among the dozens of speakers was UB Associate Professor Richard Lamb, director of the Neurocognition Science Laboratory and an expert in cognition and educational technologies, who presented on applications for virtual reality (VR) in the classroom.

Why do games help us learn?

Games do a couple things that promote learning. One, they have a leveling system based on incremental difficulty. Two, they trigger the reward system in the brain in a way that encourages continued play. So someone playing a video game might die a hundred times, yet they will continue to try and solve the level, because they know a reward is around the corner. If we can “gamify” learning and apply those structures to something like a math problem, then students will be more motivated to keep trying to figure it out.

What does virtual reality bring to the picture?

One of the more obvious benefits is that it can put you in places you may not be able to experience otherwise, like the bottom of a volcano. Today, you can actually log in to one of the bigger news sites where they’re using drones to shoot 360-degree video from inside Kilauea in Hawaii, put that into a VR headset and see it as if you were actually standing there. If I’m teaching about how lava flows, that’s a pretty effective teaching tool.

What else can VR do in the classroom?

Our research shows that what happens in virtual spaces matches up really well physiologically and cognitively with real life. So if I put you at the top of a building in virtual reality, and you’re afraid of heights, your response will be similar to what would happen if you were on top of an actual building. However, unlike the real world, you can completely control the experience in VR. I can structure the environment to isolate against distractions or to home in on a particular concept I’m trying to teach.

What’s a real example of this from your lab?

We’re currently working with preservice teachers who don’t know what it’s like working in a loud, stressful classroom full of unruly kids. We put them in a virtual classroom, using footage of actual students and computer magic to make it interactive. Because it’s a virtual environment, they can be more open in how they respond—they can scream, freeze, take off the headset. If they were with actual students, there could be a lot of fallout from that. We’re working on the same thing in the medical school, developing standardized patients in VR, so that students can practice as much as they want without the risk of harming a real person. In a nutshell, this technology is allowing us to meet the students where they are.